Texas University Responds to Biosafety Complaints

Faced with a damning list of a dozen violations in its biosafety labs, the president of Texas A&M University (TAMU) in College Station vowed today to correct the lapses, which range from unreported toxin exposures to improper protective gear. In a news conference, interim president Edward Davis also noted that any school subjected to the same scrutiny as TAMU "would probably have findings" revealing biosafety violations.

In late July, 17 officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, descended onto the TAMU campus to assess whether the school was complying with regulations that govern "select agents," toxins, such as Ebola and monkeypox, that are considered potential bioweapons and whose use is strictly controlled by the U.S. government. The site visit came just 4 months after CDC officials had visited the campus and found no serious problems. But they decided to take a second look after biosafety activist Edward Hammond obtained documents showing that a TAMU student had been exposed to the brucella bacteria, a select agent, in 2006, and that the school had kept the case quiet for a year, prompting CDC to call a halt to TAMU's research on select agents (ScienceNOW, 2 July). Hammond heads the Sunshine Project in Austin, Texas, a nonprofit watchdog that monitors research on potential bioweapons.

In its July investigation, CDC found no shortage of problems. In a report released yesterday, the agency describes a litany of biosafety lapses and singles out four lab leaders, one of whom is also an associate dean of research, for numerous violations.

The problems cited include employees having access to select agents they were unauthorized to work with; one faculty member performing a recombinant DNA experiment with a toxin, even though the experiment had not gained the necessary CDC approval; workers lacking the appropriate protective gear; three missing vials of brucella; and three individuals whose blood registered elevated levels of the bacterium and select agent Coxiella burnetii, which causes Q fever, a normally treatable disease. "There was no evidence that a coordinated response or biosafety assessment was performed as a result," of these exposures, notes the CDC report.

The CDC findings have been sent upstairs to CDC's parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services. It will decide whether to issue fines, which could range into the millions of dollars. The ban on select agent research at TAMU will remain in place until the school corrects the violations.

Davis did not dispute any part of the CDC report, but he declined to assign responsibility for the lapses or say whether any faculty would face disciplinary action. He confirmed that biosafety officer Brent Mattox has resigned, along with Richard Ewing, the vice president for research and the official responsible for the school's biosafety compliance. Ewing, however, remains on the faculty as a professor, and Davis praised him for having "been very loyal and competent." TAMU has hired Claudia Mickelson, a biosafety expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, to suggest improvements to its program. Davis is optimistic that most biosafety experiments will be up and running again within months.

"The scientific community really needs to look in the mirror and make sure they understand the importance of biosafety," says Ronald Atlas, a microbiologist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. The CDC findings and resulting tumult, including likely congressional hearings, "raises the question of whether there will continue to be public support for this research."

Hammond, who says he battled TAMU for months to gain access to documents under a state open records law, agrees on one point with Davis: "I think that there are many other schools that have issues like Texas A&M."

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